To the cynics, they’re the perfect bookend to a glittering corporate career; a feather in the cap of a business legend looking to cement their legacy with a late-life burst of benevolence.

The directors sitting on the nation’s not-for-profit “trophy boards” — the 25 or so mostly visual and performing arts jewels that any assiduous networker would give their unvested stock options to join — reads like a who’s who of ruling class gatekeepers.

Although usually unpaid, the fringe benefits are, of course, legendary. Which Eastern Suburbs magnate could seriously resist rubbing shoulders with Hollywood celebs at the Sydney Theatre Company, talking strategy with a real-life Murdoch or attending a private performance before the plebs even think about trudging to Ticketmaster?

Crikey has compiled an ranked list of Australia’s top trophy boards. Coveted directorships include those at the Australian Ballet (Sarah Murdoch, Peter Smedley), the Australian Chamber Orchestra (Janet Holmes à Court) the National Institute of Dramatic Art (Malcolm Long, Kim Dalton) and the National Gallery of Victoria trustees (Bruce Parncutt, Naomi Milgrom). Most fall under the umbrella of the 28-strong Australian Major Performing Arts Group and new directors often require a government rubber stamp.

But once you crack the club the reality of boardroom life is more prosaic. A number of senior players have told Crikey it quickly comes time to rip off the cufflinks, jump on the speed dial and give back some of the value and expertise you’ve been extracting from your employees for years. Fail to pitch in and you’re kicked to the curb, Apprentice style.

Simon Mordant — Museum of Contemporary Art chair, investment banking king, MOMA international councillor (the New York one), Wharton alumnus and STC director — told Crikey he takes a hard line on wannabe boardies that “frequently” approach him, some with fistfuls of cash but only tangential commitment.

“I would hate for someone to rock up to see me and say ‘I’ve got half-a-million dollars, you’ve got a great board at the MCA and can I be on your board? But I’d be really excited if the person said, ‘listen, I’m really passionate about what you’re doing down there, I’d like to get involved in some way’ … that’s a very bona fide conversation.”

Mordant, whose MCA opened its triumphant $53 million renovation this year (with $15 million of his own cash for a “Mordant wing”), says some hopefuls are motivated for all the wrong reasons. But when the rubber hits the road it’s a different story.

“Inevitably you’ll become a convert with the issue or you will get off the board. It’s not a lot of fun turning up to a meeting when you’re not paid and you’re not interested in the underlying issues,” he said.

Still, the fights to get on trophy boards are legendary and tales of unedifying squabbles can be a major embarrassment if leaked. CVs are emailed furiously, life coaches are used as covert middlemen, the Australia Council badgered. And if those don’t work there’s always a fluttering chequebook.

Crikey spoke to one prominent Sydney player who was recently approached to join a leading performance arts board. “The chairman was telling stories about how they get CVs from all sorts of people looking to network or get their names in the program,” they said. “The issue is that they think the people they approach will be there for practical, get-the-job-done sort of reasons and they discover they’re really there for the free tickets, the booze and to watch the orchestra.”

Specific examples abound: “I remember the head of a media buying agency who approached one leading charity and ended up getting on the board. At the time the then-CEO thought he would come with a lot of gravitas and that he would lean on the networks and magazines to get free ad space. But he did absolutely nothing and had to be politely kicked off.”

Another Harbour City socialite concurs. “There are people that get to their 50s and 60s and think they’ve earned the right or paid their dues,” they said. “There’s a group of people who are really eager and then there’s a group of people who don’t do much. You sit in these rooms and you think who’s going to do something and no one raises their hand.”

At the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s “Chairman’s Council” the perks are explicit. For $17,500 a year you get “special concerts” and “cocktail parties and dinners in private homes” with  hosts including “Aussie” John Symond, David Murray, Neville Crichton, Milgrom and Simon and Katrina Holmes à Court.

Many institutions, according to Australian Business Arts Foundation CEO Jane Haley, revolve around a power group of “magnets” like Mordant, Rupert Myer (the new chairman of the Australia Council), David Gonski (STC and countless others) and visual art overlords the Kaldors. Between them they control a substantial minority of sinecures and are permanently pestered for their trouble.

Haley, whose organisation advises arts boards on who to hire, told Crikey it’s the “work, wealth or the network” — not the prestige — that effective boards look for in new members. When you get someone on, you’re not only tapping their bank balance, but also their work ethic and contact list.

“It’s good when business leaders get on arts boards, because then they go back to their organisations and espouse what’s good about the arts.”

While AbaF offers a formal matching service, Haley says established networks tend to be relatively self-sufficient, offering up last week’s example of Bruce Parncutt’s elevation to president of the NGV’s board of trustees, succeeding Rich Lister QC and rural restaurant owner Allan Myers. Myers was then in turn named chair of the National Gallery of Australia.

(The switcharoo followed a spat earlier this year when Myers was re-appointed amid suggestions that director Naomi Milgrom was behind a push to install herself in the top job —  Milgrom is married to John Kaldor who in 2008 gifted a record $35 million collection to the Art Gallery of NSW).

According to Mordant, a good skills mix remains key. “You’re not looking for a mates board. You’re looking for people who bring the skills that will be valuable to the organisation and who collectively can be impactful,” he said.

Lachlan Murdoch, Geoff Dixon and Katie Page-Harvey sit amid the MCA’s heavy hitters, but all are happy to put their shoulder to the wheel to defend and extend the museum’s daunting collection. Murdoch’s many friends from a stint on the MCA’s youth committee in the 1980s persist to the present day.

Positive Solutions director Cathy Hunt, whose firm founded a “board connect” service to professionalise arts boards, says the presence of business leaders is an overwhelming positive, especially on less glamorous not-for-profits that can struggle with fundamentals like balance sheets.

“There’s a big different between different types of boards and different types of organisations,” she said. “Things have changed a hell of a lot. It’s good when business leaders get on arts boards, because then they go back to their organisations and espouse what’s good about the arts. I believe a lot of the people that are on those boards are actually passionate about those organisations.”

It’s not just arts boards sprinkled with magic dust. Government approved or independently appointed boards like the ABC and the Reserve Bank also command serious respect. The Australian Museum is chaired by Telstra chair Catherine Livingstone and the Salvos’ Southern States division sees Myer chief Bernie Brookes saddling up next to Herald & Weekly Times executive Peter Blunden.

And it would also be remiss to skip over members of sports boards like the Melbourne Cricket Club and the AFL Commission, which, if they were killed in a plane crash, would seriously gouge Melbourne’s cultural fabric. There’s also a curio in Sydney’s high-powered Centennial Park Trustees — many members, including Ita Buttrose, reside nearby. The private school boards examined by Crikey last month in the wake of the sacking of high-profile MLC principal Rosa Storelli also rate, but struggle for the most part to reach a critical mass.

Sydney-based entrepreneur Rose Herceg suggests one way to overcome the vanity issue is to develop an informal working committee that has specific roles and responsibilities attached. On a functional board, if the work isn’t getting done and purses aren’t being prised open, expect to be executed.

“I remember when I sat on the old Text Media board (Crikey chairman Eric Beecher was an owner) I knew what my role was: it was to write strategy and think of big ideas and new businesses. Otherwise you’re just a tire kicker. I’d like to think that if I didn’t do that Eric would have chucked me out the window,” she said.

Tony Grybowski — executive director of the arts organisations division of the Australia Council, the body that provides $120 million in government funding to the sector each year — says corporate governance has massively improved since the release of the landmark 1999 Nugent review into the nation’s 31 major performing arts organisations. There were initial fears the review would lead to the “corporatisation” of the arts.

“Helen Nugent was absolutely right,” he told Crikey, having just concluded friendly chats with his 28 chairman over the last couple of months. “Over that time the ‘I want to go on a board’ thing has significantly changed. People that go on an arts board work really hard for no money. And they want to make a contribution.

“They are just so passionate and committed, it really is just so amazing.”

Crikey‘s top 25 trophy boards — send your suggestions to and we’ll keep the list updated …

1. National Gallery of Victoria Trustees

Bruce Parncutt (president), Dr Susan Cohn, Peter Edwards, Corbett Lyon, Naomi Milgrom, Angela Ndalianas, Andrew Sisson, Michael Ullmer, Jason Yeap.

2. Sydney Theatre Company

David Gonski (chair), Jonathan Biggins, Cate Blanchett, Toni Cody, John Connolly, Martin McCallum, Justin Miller, Simon Mordant, Sam Mostyn, Andrew Stuart, Andrew Upton.

3. Australian Chamber Orchestra

Guido Belgiorno-Nettis (chair), Bill Best, Liz Cacciottolo, Chris Froggatt, Janet Holmes à Court, Angus James, Andrew Stevens, John Taberner, Peter Yates.

4. Australian Ballet

Christopher Knoblanche (chair), Robert Albert, Julie da Costa, Jim Cousins, John Ellice-Flint, Christopher Goldsworthy, Siobhan McKenna, Sarah Murdoch, Peter Smedley, Craig Spencer, Penny Fowler, Bruce Parncutt, Catherine Harris.

5. Art Gallery of NSW

Steven Lowy (president), Sandra McPhee (vice president), Geoff Ainsworth, David Baffsky, John Beard, Guido Belgiorno-Nettis, Lindy Lee, Samantha Meers, Mark Nelson, Janice Reid, Eleonora Triguboff.

6. National Gallery of Australia

Allan Myers (chair), Timothy Fairfax, Ron Radford, John Calvert-Jones, Ashley Dawson-Damer, Alan Froud, Warwick Hemsley, John Hindmarsh, Jane Hylton, Callum Morton, Jeanne Pratt.

7. Museum of Contemporary Art

Simon Mordant (chair), Doug Dean, Larissa Lavarch (nee Behrendt, term ending), Rosemary Laing, Geoff Dixon, Ari Droga, Sarah Morgan, Lachlan Murdoch, Lisa Paulsen, Katie Page-Harvey, Scott Perkins.

8. Opera Australia

Ziggy Switkowski (chair), Lesley Alway, Anson Austin, Virginia Braden, David Epstein, Tim McFarlane, Judith Stewart, Josephine Sukkar.

9. National Institute for Dramatic Arts

Malcolm Long (chair), Virginia Braden, Bruce Cutler, Kim Dalton, Kathleen Farrell, Judith Isherwood, Peter Lowry, Garry McQuinn, Professor Elizabeth More, Jim Moser, Ralph Myers, Prem Ramburuth, Lynne Williams.

10. Sydney Symphony Orchestra (also Sydney Symphony Council)

John Conde (chair), Rory Jeffes, Terrey Arcus, Ewen Crouch, Ross Grant, Jennifer Hoy, Andrew Kaldor, Irene Lee, David Livingstone, Goetz Richter.

11. Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Harold Mitchell (chair), Bronte Adams, Peter Biggs, Alan Goldberg, Alastair McKean, Ann Peacock, Michael Ullmer, Kee Wong, Oliver Carton.

12. Sydney Opera House Trust

Kim Williams (chair), Catherine Brenner, Helen Coonan, Wesley Enoch, Renata Kaldor, Robert Leece, Peter Mason, Thomas Parry.

13. Melbourne Theatre Company

Derek Young (chair), Lindsey Cattermole, Glyn Davis, John Feder, Gillian Franklin, Ian Marshman, Colin Masters, Terry Moran, Martyn Myer, Ann Tonks, Brett Sheehy.

14. Australian Broadcasting Corporation

James Spigelman (chair), Steven Skala, Mark Scott, Julianne Schultz, Cheryl Bart, Fiona Stanley, Jane Bennett.

15. Reserve Bank of Australia

Glenn Stevens (chair), Philip Lowe (deputy chair), Martin Parkinson, John Akehurst, Jillian Broadbent, Roger Corbett, John Edwards, Heather Ridout, Catherine Tanna.

16. Centennial Parklands Trustees

John Walker (chair), Yvette Pietsch (deputy chair), Anne Keating, Lindley Edwards, Ita Buttrose, Lesli Berger, Giles Edmonds.

17. AFL Commission

Mike Fitzpatrick (chair), Andrew Demetriou, Justice Linda Dessau, Bob Hammond, Graeme John, Bill Kelty, Chris Langford, Chris Lynch, Sam Mostyn.

18. Melbourne Cricket Club

Paul Sheahan (president), David Crawford, Steven Smith, Stephen Spargo, Michael Happell, David Crow, Peter Dakin, Will Fowles, Jane Nathan, Charles Sitch, Mark Smith, Ted Yencken, Karen Wood.

19. Australian Museum

Catherine Livingstone (chair), Merlin Crossley, Karina Kelly, Jason Glanville and Kim McKay, Amanda Lawson, Paul Connor, Helen Wellings, Stephen Crittenden, David Sherley, James Moody.

20. Salvation Army Southern States

Margaret Jackson (chair), Raymond A. Finger, Aylene Finger, Peter Walker, Peter Blunden, Bernie Brookes, Joanne Cameron, Michael Johnstone, John Kirby, Peter Mahon, John Paterson, Sabina Schlink, Neil Venables, Bram Cassidy.

21-25. Other states’ peak performing arts organisations (funded by the Australian Major Performing Arts Group), for example the:

West Australian Symphony Orchestra

Janet Holmes à Court (chair), Bill Bloking, Mark Coughlan, Jeff Dowling, Keith Kessell, Barrie Lepley, Anne Nolan, Julian Sher, Bryan Taylor.